Search as the new science

They weren't joking

A few weeks ago, on the occassion of the company’s tenth anniversary, Marissa Mayer – Google’s VP, Search Products & User Experience – shared her thoughts on the future of search. The most striking feature of the analysis is a kind of quasi-religious fervour with which Mayer takes on her mission to extend the scope and realm of search, and of course, the pure belief that the company has in its continued ubiquity.

More than any dramatic change in paradigm, Mayer is previewing the building of an incrementally ‘better mousetrap’ – perfecting the search toy. Universal search, socially-honed search, location-orientated search, context awareness, search without the box, improved language handling and improved spelling correction.

But, as much as search has so rapidly come to dominate our  lives (and certainly our advertising), shouldn’t we be expecting more in the next ten years than just cranking the handle on technology which even our grandparents now take for granted? An idea that’s already entered our dictionaries? A noun that became a verb-generic before it’s eigth birthday.?

Let’s not forget that the Google twins are mapping the genome and the surface of Mars. They’re indexing audio clips, recreating video advertising and may even be able to help you find a cab in New York City.

Considering how far we’ve come together in the last two bubble bursts, where should we be setting our hopes for 2020?

If we were science fiction writers or TV producers, we’d have all-knowing computers with sinister voices, or at least self-driving cars.

Perhaps a greater amibition should be for us to rethink the concept of knowledge and truth in a world where we will be increasingly overwhelmed by the number of propositions to be evaluated. What we are talking about here is the ability to deliver a practical epistemology, rather than a theoretical framework.

To do this with a Platonic concept of truth is one thing. When we see truth as socially constructed, we can question again whether we are indeed all looking at the same picture, or whether communities of truth (or even conditions of truth) should be adaptable by who is searching, how they are searching, when they are searching, why they are searching. As the scope of what can be searched extends, as the scope of where search results are used becomes ever larger, the significance of this question grows too.

If a million people incorrectly believe something to be true when it is not, does that make it any less false? What about if they all blog about it? Well it certainly shouldn’t. But I think we all know that’s not the case.

What about a true thing which is all over the web but Google thinks it’s SPAM?

The problem is that for something to be true, it doesn’t matter if no-one knows it.  But to be known, something must be both true and be believed. Google’s often in charge of the later, and as it becomes ever more the owner of the context of social defintion, its role in the former will increasingly grow.

Then there will be more to its power then deciding on CPC rates.

No one to hear you scream

2012 Olympic celebrations in Trafalgar Square

An interesting comment on the last post came back to a topic which I seem to be asked, or ask myself, more and more often. If social media increasingly leads to closed groups, and tomorrow’s media consumers are increasingly avoiding the mass media, what will happen to mass-participation media events, and don’t we as a culture lose something if we lose common points of reference. What on earth will we talk about around the water cooler?

In particular, I’ve heard this as a strong initial response to Clay Shirky, who argues here that however ‘sad’ it is to play World of Warcraft, it’s a better use of the ‘cognitive surplus’ than watching a re-run of Gilligan’s Island for the 100th time. (Incidentally, what was the cognitive heatsink that we had as kids in the UK? Clearly Neighbours later on but before that? Rocketman?).

Of course, this is not a new idea. I remember years ago, a planner explained to me why you couldn’t advertise cars with direct mail – it wasn’t enough for me to know how cool my new Audi is, I need to be certain all my neighbors knew too.

Perhaps the point about ‘mass-participation media events’ isn’t that their power is diminishing (witness Apprentice this year), but rather that they are fewer and more extraordinary.

There also seems to be a point now that whole social groups can have ‘mass-participation’ events which they all know about but which are entirely closed to those outside of the group: that wierd feeling you get when everyone in a room’s been reading the same status’ and knows each others business without having ever discussed it.

It remains worth remembering a serious challenge that has been raised by commentators including Esther Dyson and Andrew Orlowski, about how these groups aren’t necessarily healthy, challenging or participatory. Often preferring to define very strict group rules and mores.

The final point, of course, is just what we mean by participation. By 2012, when the Olympic games is going on in London, what will the experience of watching it be like? If you’ve seen what NBC has planned for Beijing, the mind boggles about what it will be like in 4 1/2 years (three times the gestation period for a standard YouTube) but most certainly there will be opportunities to observe almost everything about the event, to turn the event into a private mass media event for your network, to ‘virtually’ compete and to compile, annotate and share your own coverage. 

With apologies for shoplifting to Hugh MacLeod, mass participation media events have always – of course -been social objects. So in the era of mass media, it’s not a surprise the objects themselves tended to have the same traits. Whilst we may still have global events to built frameworks around, surely local (and group) interpretation and meaning can be added to createsocial object which can be more intimately shared.

The reason, it seems to me, that nobody understands microblogging unless they do it themselves, is that they don’t understand how small social objects can be.

And, to revisit the negativity of small disconnected groups (and ever-decreasing differences of opinion in those groups), technology can take these objects and make them available to huge audiences. Anyone can write a blog, anyone can produce a LOLcat (as Shirky jokes), and by 2012, everyone will be able to participate in our global media event.

It is this access to open social objects which is at the heart of participation in all cases. It’s what got all the bloggers I know addicted, it’s what makes teenagers turn the telly off and Facebook on, and it’s what makes Amelia’s wired retired fall in love with Skype, so they can share the smallest of social objects – not  just their grandchildren’s first words or their first tooth, but their everyday stories about the day at school.

And do I really need to know how many people watched The Apprentice altogether if I know that my family, friends and colleagues watched it. Isn’t that enough?

Fun and games

Image of inside of cathedral. The church has been very successful at creating shared meaning.

There’s been a fun discussion on Gaping Void the last couple of days in response to Hugh’s post Social objects for beginners. In particular, Rachel Bellow weighed in with:

‘Social objects are the particular manifestation of shared meaning, right? So that suggests there’s a drive underlying all these manifestations… that the social object is not, in itself, the drive. The need for meaning… specifically shared meaning… is a deep human impulse that will, invariably, manifest in some form or another. If not this social object, another. Social networks like Facebook are simply evidence of that quest. Aren’t they simply forums where the quest for shared meaning can coalesce and result in manifestation (social objects)?’

I take her point to be this: What we observe might be the social object itself: the iPhone, the new baby, Christmas etc; but is the deeper underlying question about shared meaning which matters.

This is clearly not a small question, sounding more like the challenges faced in epistemology by many of the greatest philosophers for centuries. In particular, Wittgenstein (to radically oversimplify) understood all truths to be social, and the process of being judged to be correct little more than proving you could adhere to the common ‘language games’.

Just a small observation on that point. Before we had Facebook, the internet and so on, shared meaning was restricted to geographical or language groupings.

What is the most successful shared meaning ever? Surely it is the church, who managed to create a common language shared by millions across social and geographical borders.

However, as discussed here, we are not saying that the control of social meaning has been democratised by digital media. Instead, it has clearly been decentralised. Disparate groups across any divide (except the digital divide) can now free-form groups of shared meaning. The other massive shift is that being a member of one meaning-group (perhaps we should call them ‘karass‘ in honour of KV), is no longer exclusive. I can simultaneously be in multiple groups and I can bridge those groups for other members.

People have talked as Google as a ‘reputation management system‘. that’s always seemed a little narrow to me. How about Google (et al) as a ‘map of social meaning’, and imagine the power it will have when the engines understand the groupings of the communities of meaning.

This all seems very abstract. But of course, there is also a question here about exactly the how the role of social objects works in deciding how people buy things. It is this practical question which Hugh is discussing in today’s post: Why Social Objects are the Future of marketing.

Hugh asks ‘if your product is not a Social Object, why are you in business?’. I think we should revise that to ‘If your brand is not a Social Object, why are you in business?’. Brands are all about shared meaning of course, and branding is an attempt to influence and control that meaning.

I also think we need to look at two hierachies in which brands can exist as social objects. The first is the role they play in people’s lives in the continuum between need and want: between physical survival, functional value, enjoyability, emotional connection, social expression, and growth and learning. Notice the different relations we have to the heating in our houses, and our sports utility vehicles; between the newly born child and the newly purchased house. Luckily for us, as Hugh points out:

‘The bad news is, most products are boring. The good news is, most word-of-mouth is boring’.

The second hierarchy is a fascinating one as I presume it will be the key decider as to how social objects will spread, and therefore can help in marketing products. The second hierarchy is the observation that wherever a social object exists (within a context of shared meaning), it is not necessarily shared between two parties on an equal footing. Within the community of shared interest we have leaders and followers. These roles can change, but the landscape is not flat. And, similarly, the motivations around the objects themselves is not flat. Different members of the community will be trying to achieve radically different things.