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Knocking Down Walls

Ok, Facebook freaks, start copying all your precious personal tidbits and paste them somewhere. That 4-paragraph-long list of favorite movies, copy-n-paste. That 3-page note about the meaning of life, copy-n-paste. That funny thread from your high school boyfriend that made your knees knock again, copy-n-paste. Get ready to rebuild your profiles because Google is gunning for Facebook.

According to TechCrunch sources, Google Me is real.

Buzz didn’t create any, so Google is going big with a social networking site to rival the big wall in the sky. Isn’t it interesting that 500 million people have been satisfied with publishing little bits of themselves at a time? There’s no “body of work” on Facebook, just thought streams and consciousness streams and, sure, rivers of time.

Is anyone out there intested in creating something that will last? If Facebook is the internet equivalent of chatting at the water cooler, if blogging (133 million of us) is compared to letter writing, if creating your own website is synonymous to hanging a shingle, how do we push the paradigm? Is there something conceptually greater out there in the world of personal publishing?

I’ve been pretty vocal about Facebook’s fraility and lack of vision. Sure it connects us. But it doesn’t elevate us or our collective consciousness.

I don’t know what I’m searching for, but I’ll know when Google finds it.

Who do you really want in charge in Afghanistan?

Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings has created the kind of stir that political journalists love: his treatise on surly Stan McChrystal changed the course of history. Undoubtably, McChrystal should have done a better job managing his image. Army generals probably aren’t allowed to Tweet, but some Justin Bieber-ish gurglings could have really helped McChrystal, who Hastings described as “a snake-eating rebel, a ‘Jedi’ commander.”

Now, to replace the  “Runaway General,” Obama has appointed Petraeus, who Hastings describes as “a dweeb, a teacher’s pet with a Ranger’s tab . . .”

I don’t understand how we can be upset with McChrystal for dubbing his group  “Team America.”  Seriously?  What would we rather have them called?: “Team Al Queda?” or  “Insurgents ‘R Us?”

Many things about this don’t add up. Troops were frustrated with McChrystal, not because he was a bad-ass, but because he curtailed the use of force.  They weren’t happy that insurgents who didn’t have weapons were assumed to be civilians. McChrystal advocated the creation of a “courageous restraint” medal specifically to protect innocent Afgahan people. Sure, he’s brusque. Sure, he spoke his mind. And, yes, he took care of business.

I’ll take Jedi over dweeb.

Read the Rolling Stone article and make your own assessment.

Elena KaganI was shocked to read in the L.A. Times this morning that bloggers and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly are making an issue of Supreme Court designee Elena Kagan’s sexual orientation. Times columnist James Rainey makes some excellent points about how mainstream media outlets such as both Times (New York and LA), NPR and the Associated Press have stayed clear of the story, since they “exercise something called news judgement.”

Will this be what separates the wheat from the chaff in the future? As social media and “liking” overtakes old school balanced reporting, will measured decisions about what is important and what is not even matter?

Liberal blogger Andrew Sullivan is quoted in Rainey’s story as saying “my job is to think out loud. It is not my job to report stories.” REALLY Andrew? Is this the mantra of all bloggers? God help us.

Let’s begin the countdown and see how long it takes before big media outlets jump on the Kagan lesbian bandwagon.

James Rainey’s On the Media column

Know Your AudienceIt’s easy to get caught up in the world of stumbling, embedded links, widgets, dashboards and page ranks. But, published literature and the blogosphere share a common treatise for writers: good writing is good writing. If a writer is on target, concise and appealing, his audience will fall in line.

Many blog postings from 2005 warned writers that keyword optimization wasn’t the only game in town. Short paragraphs and bulleted lists would get recognized just as readily in a Google search. And, indeed, three years later, in Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide (2008), the top three pointers to writers appear:

  • Easy-to-read text
  • Organize around the topic
  • Use relevant language

Google tells web designers to make sure that they are keeping their users in mind when designing a site, not just designing for their crawlers:

Even though this guide’s title contains the words “search engine”, we’d like to say that you should base your optimization decisions first and foremost on what’s best for the visitors of your site. They’re the main consumers of your content and are using search engines to find your work. Focusing too hard on specific tweaks to gain ranking in the organic results of search engines may not deliver the desired results. Search engine optimization is about putting your site’s best foot forward when it comes to visibility in search engines.

Online technology has had, and will continue to have, an impact on writing. As our knowledge base moves out of libraries, bookstores and university research centers and into “the cloud,” it is clear that information has never been more accessible. The key challenge for technologists, and alas, for writers, is in the organization of the information.

As print readers dip into their periodical of choice, they are enticed by catchy titles and headlines of nearby stories, chapters or sibebars.  In his Social Theory and Social Structure (1949), sociologist Robert K. Merton called this phenomenon of discovering one thing on the way to another  the “serendipity pattern.” In “A Better Pencil,” Dennis Baron aptly points out that:

Skimming printed books and articles may be tedious, but it can produce unexpected results, turning up something by accident that proves to be significant . . .in contrast, the instant, focused digital search we have come to depend on causes us to miss such serendipitous information. (p. 143)

Of course, the serendipity pattern still exists on the internet—it’s called “stumbling upon” and it’s far more complex than your eye glancing over at a witty headine.

Even though Google’s search engine evolves weekly into returning more and more relevant results, it still returns a fair amount of irrelevant data. The lure of interactivity, connectivity and sheer opportunity causes a serendipity pattern of a different sort. And we are confused because it’s not just another headline or a color static advertisement that is catching our eye. It’s the lure of being able to insert ourselves into the process—to comment on a blog post, to take a poll about the subject matter at hand—and it’s the accessibility of all many data types at once (books, magazines, emails, snippets) –these are the things that draw us towards learning about other things.

So when a writer is paying attention to the Google algorithm, is his creativity hampered by the damper factor? When otherwise creative copy is subjected to the cruel hand of the optimizer, does it lose its zing?

Keyword searchMany bloggers contend that SEO will be the death of the interesting title or the creative headline. There are many examples of old-fashioned, grab –the-reader headlines: In Sunday’s (4/23/2010) Los Angeles Times, a front sports page headline demands attention:

KING’S ENGLISH

The reader assumes this story is about the LA Kings given its placement in the sport section. But the way the headline writer plays on the words (King’s English connotes refined use of the language harkening back to some King in England), might draw in a reader who otherwise would only look for a Lakers story.

The allusion to ole’ England disappears in the online version of the headline, since the L.A. Times has clearly learned the importance of SEO. A keyword-enhanced headline remains, perfectly optimized for the “boredom” factor:

Dan Redding, in a 2010 blogpost entitled, “When SEO Kills Good Writing,” gives an excellent example of how SEO might conflict with the classics:

Ernest Hemingway titled one of his masterpieces For Whom the Bell Tolls. The novel benefits from a gorgeous title that strikes a chord in the context of its themes. The title and the novel are one. But if the book had been titled by SEO specialists, it would’ve been named Spanish Civil War Drama with Romance. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Have all the rules for reading and writing changed? In the old print-reader’s world, an entire publication was delivered to your doorstep, be it a newspaper, a magazine or a book that ordered from Amazon. Currently and more so in the future, we are not dealing with entire publications. We aren’t dealing with chapters or articles or even stories. We are dealing with “sound bites” or “micro-stories” as readers scan their RSS feeds for tidbits of information. These readers already know what they’re looking for. Noami S. Baron calls this “snippet literacy.” (p. 148).

Readers of old-style publications didn’t necessarily know what they were looking for. A newspaper reader only knew he wanted today’s news. A reader of Time magazine only knew he wanted an overview of the week’s major events. A reader of Vogue only knew she wanted a smattering of fashion and beauty advice for the month.

Inherent in Google’s search algorithm, in fact, the very thing that differentiates Google search from competitors is something called the damping factor. After being frustrated by the Alta Vista and Yahoo searches that returned unsatisfactory results such as “Bill Clinton Sucks” jokes as the best result simply because a site with hundreds of Bill Clinton jokes had the most page content, Sergey Brin and Larry Page set out to revolutionize search.

In their 1998 paper, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” the two Stanford students determined a way to make search results more relevant, while at the same time, engineering into the system a constant that ensures the ADD-like behavior of computer users. In “Always On,” Noami Baron points out that some researchers contend that Attention Deficit Disorder diagnoses have risen because of computers. She calls this “acquired deficit disorder.” (p. 219)

Brin and Page extol that “…the damping factor is the probability at each page the ‘random surfer’ will get bored and request another random page.” The damping factor is set between 0 and 1 and defaults to 0.85. Damping is sometimes added to a single page, but other times added to a group of pages, which “allows for personalization and can make it nearly impossible to deliberately mislead the system in order to get a higher ranking.”

The damping or “how long before the user gets bored” factor is becoming the basis of our world wide web experience. 0.85 is our litmus test for quality. Note that the relevancy of search results are not being evaluated on quality benchmarks such as:

  • Does this source have any published books?
  • Has this source been quoted by any other publications?
  • Does this source travel to universities and give speeches?
  • Does this source have a degree in the subject?
  • How many years of experience does the source have?

Instead of evaluating based on quality or credibility, Google measures against a “boredom” constant. What does this mean for writing? Well, one of the tenants good writers follow is to “keep it short.” Content producers for websites will certainly be trained to do that.