I was struck by Alexis Madrigal’s description of how the Internet functions – a human phenomenon, recreated every day, mediated by material machines and generative algorithms. It’s an evocative image, in line with anthropological work on smaller communities online (say, the ethnography My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft, on World of Warcraft). But here Madrigal blows that up into a much larger view:
For just about every person, the Internet is not content brands that they return to mindlessly day after day. The Internet experience is composed of people (friends, famous people, Internet famous people, high school frenemies) and individual things (stories, items of clothing, pictures). These components get rearranged anew every single day into the idiosyncratic Internet that one knows as one’s own.
And because Google is built by ingesting human intelligence, the way its search work reflects those priorities. MacArthur wants the Internet to be a directory of brand names, but that’s not how it developed. And if you remember the hand-edited Internet directory of coherent, complete websites that Yahoo once was, you know why: It was impossible to find anything! For human and technical reasons, the fundamental unit that makes sense is not harpers.org (the site) but http://harpers.org/blog/2013/01/googles-media-barons/ (the page). Anyone who has used the Internet knows this, but MacArthur can’t admit that because it would mean agreeing that Google indexing pages is a good thing.
One last thought. Nowadays, most people see several versions of the hand-edited Internet: one is the stream of content their friends share, two is Wikipedia, and three is the way Google recommends search terms in real-time. Your Internet is increasingly shaped by other people’s judgment processed through machines’ ranking algorithms. With Facebook Graph Search, and Google’s Search Plus Your World, this trend is picking up steam.
I might rework Madrigal’s line that “Google is built by ingesting human intelligence.” Perhaps human activity is a better concept than “intelligence.” Just think I Can Has Cheezburger? – LOLCats, rather than The Atlantic or Harpers.
In this view, Madrigal’s analysis comes in lines with what Bonni Nardi’s analysis of World of Warcraft. Here is Rex on Savage Minds describing Nardi’s approach:
Nardi has a long background in studying how people interact with technology. If I understand this correctly, people originally studied usability: how people interacted with computers and how you could change computers to make them more usable. Then they realized that what people wanted to use technology for was affected by the form that technology itself took. Nardi was one of the people who took this insight and developed ‘activity theory’, a generalized approach which made action rather than the actors the center of its approach.
People’s actions, and the mediating content and technology, get rearranged anew every single day on the Internet. It’s an intriguing view, one that highlights its impermanence and its generativity.