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Posts Tagged ‘Lisa Jacobs’

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.

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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.

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