Morality of the PageRank

by phil on Sunday Jun 1, 2003 1:41 PM
Google, advertising, morality

Summary of problems with googlewashing. I had this internal debate regarding how the phrase "Second Superpower" got googlewashed by this guy. The Register and /. was whining about this, but then I thought what was the problem in this? A majority of bloggers decided hey, this was a great site, and therefore it deserved to be number 1. Also, theoretically, if somebody were to search for the second superpower, a good chance is that their intention IS to find this particular article. So, why is it unfair that this new definition get credit for the meaning of the term Second Superpower. I think the primary argument is that it's just "not right."

And so, there's the rub. The PageRank is a battle-ground for morality. By the fact that Google can determine through ranking what a particular term means and what content informs that term's definition, Google now has a deeper reach than just teacher. It's gone from library-alternative to higher-education substitute to now meme-shaper. Does Google have a certain social responsibility? I gather from reading their About-Pages that they uphold some vague semblance of values, such as roller-blading to work and not letting suits interfere with the nerds. This, I think is a start, because the suits tend to follow money which is, as they say, the root of all evil. Nerds, on the other hand, at least follow some vague techno-uptopian thinking where they're the benevolent dictators of a machine-like righteousness that's part meritocracy, part libertarian. So, I'd take a nerd morality over a suit morality. But given this moral responsibilty that Google has on search terms, how exactly are they supposed to act on it?

What's the framework on thinking about this?

One way of thinking is, "people should be able to find what they're looking for."

Okay, that's fine, I think a link democracy is a way to start. But, what if they don't know what they're looking for. If I search for "second superpower" and I'm trying to find that particular thing I heard about, then yeah, that was the right ranking. But what if I'm some kid in high school, doing some research on superpowers, and this comes up?

Is the PageRank morality going to always be inevitably flawed because we have little idea of what the intention of the searcher is?

And you can't say, well, you want to give the majority of the people what they want to read--you could be inappropriately re-defining a term based on a tyranny of the majority.

Should weights be given to certain domains? Like if a Stanford professor's definition of "neurotheology" is manifested in a paper that's not widely linked, should that get a higher PageRank than a teenager's fan page on "neurotheology and rock n' roll" that gets popularly linked by bloggers and his friends?

The question is, what is the right array of results for a given term? I emphasize the word right because it brings about an emerging area of information-morality that is probably going to become important en route to the Singularity.

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