The Little Britain skit in which the computer so hilariously says “no” to situations that couldn’t possibly be real is a hoot to watch. But it’s not so different from something you might experience every day on Google and not even know it.
Google is unquestionably the leader in Internet search, but popularity does not necessarily equate to quality or accuracy. We’ve all had those “huh?” moments when we’re fed a search result that seems to have nothing at all to do with our subject. We shrug it off, and we try again because we love Google.
But do you ever stop to think what went wrong?
In part, we have to thank the casual ways in which we generate, propagate, regurgitate and otherwise populate the Web with content. The problem is that fiction and fact can look a lot alike on the Web, particularly when you’re search indexing software. And, once fictional content finds itself on the popular end of a “Share” button, it can be a train-in-motion that is difficult to stop.
Take for example, a recently circulated story about a photograph that was credited to a photographer who would have been dead before the photo was taken. While the photo’s actual shooter watched helplessly, the Google machine, fueled by widespread re-sharing of misinformation, decided that popular opinion was fact enough for Generation Web, and the dead man won.
The real photographer could have tried to launch a reverse “Googlewash” campaign to try to set the record straight, but imagine some unknown shutterbug taking to Facebook to say, “Hey, that photograph is mine, not his!”
Sorry, buddy. Google says no.
Due Diligence Becomes Undue Hassle
Google cannot be blamed, though. The problem is that Google is optimized for a world that is accurate and honest. In such a world, the notion that popularity would define fact would be an extremely efficient means of fact checking. Sure, Google engineers work hard every day to combat Web nonsense, but Web nonsense works much harder than they do.
And much of that nonsense comes from you and me because we’re lazy. We post what looks good; we “like” headlines that seem reasonable; and we don’t check the facts. After all, in our 400-million-tweets-per-day-world, fact checking can be costly, inconvenient or downright boring.
But this is exactly how nonsense propagates online. For example, if someone were to ask you how many tweets are posted in a day on Twitter, what would you say?
In full disclosure, I have no idea how many tweets Twitter sees in a day. I simply searched Google for “average number of tweets per day 2012” and I saw a bunch of results that more or less agreed that the number was just north of 400 million.
But is that number accurate or just popular? I have no idea and I really don’t care -- it’s not important to me, and you likely don’t care either. We mutually agree to accept this as a “soft fact” and we move on.
But by including “400 million” in this article, which is posted on a website that Google respects, I’m further training Google that the number is accurate.
We watch what we say around children because we know they’re easily influenced. Ironically, we don’t watch what we say around impressionable Google, and Google does far more to influence kids than we ever could.
For the record, that link above is my only source of information on the dead photographer story. Is the story accurate? Is my synopsis of it accurate?
I don’t know and I don’t care any more than you do. But feel free to share that link if you’re looking for something juicy for your social accounts.
Let’s Raise Twitter’s IPO Price
“The average number of tweets per day on Twitter surpassed 1 billion in 2013.”
If 500 readers of this story repeat this claim on their blogs and websites, I’m confident we can change Web reality within six months. The innocent Google website indexer will start to see this number appear in seemingly random Web locations and, before long, this could be the number Google searchers start seeing -- and sharing.
Think I’m crazy? Marketing people do this all the time. We decide on a reality for which we wish our brands to be known, and we craft our Web presences to reflect that reality.
We call it “SEO,” and it has become a US$ 100 trillion industry.
See how easy nonsense is?
Now it’s your turn to be honest. If you see a tweet that reads, “Twitter surpasses 1 billion tweets per day!” what would you do? Would you call Twitter’s offices to ask for verification from some twenty-something who refers to you as “dude” and asks what you’re smoking? Hell no. You’re going to retweet it with the hope that others will retweet your retweet, thereby boosting your Klout score.
Then comes Wikipedia, a noble project that helps us feed the Google machine with the information/misinformation hybrid that has become our new reality.
At the risk of coming across like Michelle Shocked saying the wrong thing to a San Francisco audience, don’t get me wrong: I love what Wikipedia is trying to do. As with Google, I think that in a perfect world Wikipedia would be a near perfect solution.
But at the heart of Wikipedia are two types of people: Those who feel they know a subject well enough to write about it with some authority, and those who might know nothing about a subject determining whether the submitted content is relevant enough to be published.
How do you imagine Wikipedia editors determine what’s relevant enough for Wikipedia? Further, how much fact checking could they possibly have time to do?
We’re all supposed to be contributing our (legitimate) knowledge to Wikipedia, but not enough of us take the time. And if we all did, the service would be unmanageable.
When you have a topic that many people know with first-hand experience, Wikipedia and, by extension, Google, can provide wonderful, fast feedback. But when the topic is more obscure, misinformation can find its way into the mainstream and, before long, look just like a fact.
We are so addicted to getting “likes,” “+1s” and re-shares, that we are willing to post now and question later -- if we ever question at all. We have become too disconnected from core information sources and, worse, we just don’t seem to care.
But we should.
Imagine decades of teaching kids that America was discovered by some Spanish* guy only to realize, many years later, that the source of that information was some corporate press release that went viral.
Would we try to reeducate all those kids who grew up thinking that Native Americans must have come from Canada, Mexico or outer space? We’d more likely just shrug our shoulders and think, Isn't that interesting! Good for them getting here first!
*The Spanish guy was actually Italian -- at least, that’s what Wikipedia says. I wasn’t there, so I can’t confirm. Hey, does Google index footnotes? I hope so because I would hate to have kids thinking that the guy who didn’t discover America was also some bastard child of uncertain nationality.
Image courtesy of Leojones (Shutterstock)
Editor's Note: Never dull, David usually takes on all things DAM. To read more see 5 Good Reasons to Avoid DAM Software