goodtosee #2: Scroogle & more

In the last couple of months I have done extensive interviews with 17 people more or less directly involved in the social construction of search engines. The interviewees ranged from search engine engineers, people working in information retrieval, search engine optimizers, content providers and marketers, but also proponents from the broader societal context including policy makers, jurists, activists, journalists, and critical internet scholars – from the German and US-American context. All these people shared and discussed their different viewpoints on search engines with me. The material I’ve only recently started to analyze looks extremely interesting – thanks to all of them! First insights will be presented next week at the Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand/ Johannesburg! :)

For now, I’d like to share some kind of by-product of these interviews with you: the landscape of search engines my interview partners depicted. Independently from their heterogeneous standpoints and backgrounds they all drew a pretty similar picture. It may best be described with the term “Googlepoly”, which was coined by Pasquinelli in the book “Deep Search” (which I highly recommend by the way!).


All of my interview partners described Google as THE actor on the market, the “monopolist” or “oligopolist”. Some of them further referred to Microsoft’s Bing – who bought Yahoo just recently – as a possible future competitor, while others doubt that. Further, ASK was mentioned from time to time. But what search engines exist apart from these big, highly commercial players? Are there alternatives out there?

Having been asked about the broader landscape of search engines my interviewees drew a more complex picture, I’d like to share (and strengthen) here:

Besides the commercial search tools there is a great variety of search engines differing in size, use, and purpose. First of all there are meta-search engines, which basically use search results from both commercial tools and alternative technologies. SEARCH3, for example, enables users to compare search results from Google, Bing, and Twitter (?) to get a broader picture of search results. The German search engine METAGER uses results from BING/ YAHOO and small search engines specializing in certain thematic fields. These search technologies have the primary purpose to broaden the users’ perspective and to display search results without advertising.

Similarly, other search tools draw on/ use/ exploit big commercial players and their algorithms. Especially the so-called “green” search engines have become popular in this respect. ECOSIA, for example, describes itself as a “social business dedicated to environmental sustainability via the donation of revenue to the world’s most effective rainforest protection programs”. Within broader debates on climate change ECOSIA & co. claim to donate parts of its advertising revenue to WWF’s work in the rain forest. The fact that ECOSIA is powered by the BING/ YAHOO complex and employs its search algorithm, however, limits its “green” purpose drastically since ECOSIA – and all the other green search engines – use the same computer power and create the same CO2 emission as BING, GOOGLE or any other search engine.

Further, SCROOGLE is an interesting and humorous initiative. SCROOGLE basically exploits GOOGLE through using its algorithm, while protecting users’ privacy through encrypting users’ data. It makes their search query anonymous so to say (and makes fun of Google through displaying all kinds of comics, pictures etc.). Similarly, the meta-search engine IXQUICK, known as STARTPAGE in the US, is dedicated to protect the users’ privacy. Contrary to SCROOGLE it has its own algorithm and follows a quite elaborated business philosophy and policy.

In addition to these universal search engines there is a range of special interest search tools such as the Blog search engine TECHNORATI, the language search tool LINGUEE (German-English), BASE dedicated to search scientific documents, or WOLFRAM ALPHA, which aims at making “systematic” and “expert-level” knowledge accessible to the broader public. While it has its media hype at the beginning, there is not much said about WOLFRAM ALPHA anymore – most probably because it works best with mathemetic formulas, which are not amongst the top  search queries according to trend graphs. Further, the peer-to-peer search engine YACI may be seen as a real alternative to commercial, top-down search companies. YACI is a de-centralized search engine that wants to “achieve freedom of information through a free, distributed web search which is powered by the world’s users”.

Finally, there are European initiatives to challenge US-based companies such as the French search engine QUAERO and the German search technology THESEUS. Both of them received funding from the public sector and the EU and both of them did not take off yet, quite on the contrary. Recently, another European initiative, EUROPEANA, aiming at ordering “Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage”, has been introduced. Maybe this one will succeed in introducing a competitive European search engine, you never know.

Most of my interview partners further referred to social media such as FACEBOOK or TWITTER as potential competitors on the search market. Whether GOOGLE & co. manage to integrate more social data into their searches or whether they’ll be outpaced by social networks and their recommendation system remains to be seen in the future. One interview partner described it as a “battle between man and machine”.

This rich repertoire of search technologies – plus the ones I haven’t talked about here – shows that there are indeed alternatives to the “Googlepoly” out there. Whether your goal is to save your private data, to get more diverse search results, to create a more “green IT”, to take part in developing a de-centralized search, or to just escape Google for once: It might be worth trying one of the search technologies depicted above, just to see what it’s like outside the Googleverse.

Dr. Google: Wettbewerb um Aufmerksamkeit

My article “Dr. Google: Wettbewerb um Aufmerksamkeit” has been published on the website of the Austrian TV broadcast ORF :) Its aim is to summarize the main results from my PhD. It was really fun writing something less academic for a broader audience! Special thanks go to Lukas Wieselberg from the ORF for his support, to Thomas Müller from Textfeld, as well as Michael, Lisi, Florian & Uli, who figured as “pre-readers”! (photo credit: ORF/ Ewa Walicka, Fotolia.com)

Algorithmic ideology at oxford internet institute/ oii 21-24 September 2011

I’m happy to announce that my paper “Algorithmic Ideology: How capitalist society shapes search engines” has been accepted at the OII conference in September (with thanks to Ken Hillis for the inspiration to the title). The conference “A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society” has the central goal to critically assess the last decade of social research on the Internet and identify directions for research over the next. Further, the 10th anniversery of the founding of the OII will be celebrated. The line-up of the speakers is highly impressive: Manuel Castells, Vint Cerf, Dr. Laura DeNardis, Professor William H. Dutton, Andrew Graham, Eszter Hargittai, Brian Loader, Dr. Lisa Nakamura, Dr. Victoria Nash, and last but not least Professor Barry Wellman. I’m particularly looking forward to discuss my paper in the audience of Manuel Castells or Vint Cerf – who both will certainly have to say a lot about the development of search technology/ Google in the context of capitalist society/ the information economy. For further information on the conference topics, speakers & registration, please go to the conference website (credits for the image OII).

goodtosee #1: diaspora & mubi

After a great time in Vienna, Linz and Tirol I’ve returned to Umeå, where the snow is still piling up. Although I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions I thought to clean up my life a little bit over the turn of the year. The probably most liberating decision was to drop the idea of turning my PhD into a book. Instead of reworking the same piece of text over and over again or paying a lot of money to get it out there as a book, I’ve decided to put it online and upload it on textfeld, an Austrian platform for sharing and discussing academic work. Further, I’m working on journal articles, that are much more fun to write anyway. Blog-wise I’ve decided to introduce a new rubrique aiming at discussing one website, initiative, institution, or online platform I find worth to spread per month. I call it goodtosee.

To start with – and against my own idea of discussing one site per month – I start out with discussing two social networking sites: Diaspora and MUBI. Invited by my colleague Jana Herwig I joined Diaspora just to see what it’s like. Created as an alternative to Facebook, which spams you with news, apps and ads, Diaspora looks minimal and friendly.

Instead of “friends” you add “family” or “work”-related people or whatever category you invent yourself. This seems sympathetic since the one-size-fits-all friends category has become empty anyway. Further, the lack of advertising and news spam is extremely pleasant. Despite the sympathy I have for the platform I haven’t really figured out what to do with it yet. Browsing the profiles of my – so far – two contacts makes it hard to see what their social relations are, also because the news channel is lacking. So the social surveillance we’ve learnt on Facebook doesn’t quite work here. Further, the function of importing images, links to websites, or youtube movies seems to be complicated, if possible at all, which makes it hard for me to get started. The reason for that might be just my own incapability to let go of all the annoying, but at the same time handy features I got used to on Facebook. Or the lack of friends or rather lack of “family” and “work” I have on Diaspora. In any case I’m curious about the platform’s further development – it’s an alpha version and feed-back is appreciated – and whether I’ll be part of it. Let me know if you wanna try it out yourself; I’ve still some invitations and would be interested what you think of it!

The second platform worth mentioning is MUBI. MUBI is an African city, but it’s also a social network dedicated to watching, sharing and discussing movies. The platform is more intuitive than Diaspora since it has all the basic features we got used to in the past: It has a news channel, it links to Facebook and Twitter, and it provides you with a profile you can design with the help of familiar features.

Its main purpose, however, is to offer a movie database and stream all types of movies, from classics to recent films, for a small amount of money (1-3 Euros). The movies that are top-rated and thus presented to users on the homepage are no blockbusters, but films usually shown at small film festivals around the world. This makes the platform immediately interesting to me, not to speak of the films by Christoph Schlingensief that are featured as well. When digging into the films, however, one big problem occurs: due to different copyright regulations in different countries not all films may be watched in all countries.. so it’s a bit of a lottery whether you can actually watch the movie you wanna see. Hence, if you’d like to watch old classics the Internet Archive might actually be the better option for you. Apart from that I highly recommend all film lovers to check it out!

I think these two websites are goodtosee because both of them are innovative and refreshing alternatives to big, commercial companies. Despite some initial difficulties I would love to see them grow and become serious competitors to money-driven platforms using our personal data to raise their revenues.

internet research 11.0 / AoIR Gothenburg/ #ir11

I just returned from Gothenburg, where I had a really good time at the AoIR conference (21-23 October). Although feeling a little exhausted, I still try to summarize some interesting ideas I took home from “the South”. This, of course, is not meant to be a full review of the conference, since 6 parallel sessions are hard to attend simultaneously (even to follow all of them on the twitter channel was overwhelming). Contrary, I just want to selectively discuss inspiring talks and thoughts, probably strongly biased by my interest in search engines and knowledge production, as well as my affiliation to HUMlab.

Day 1: In the first session I attended I found the talk by David Kurt Herold on “China’s internet users as the glue that keeps society working” most amazing. Davin Herold showed that Chinese use the web to help each other against crimes and abuse in cases where legal or social institutions failed. He discussed “human flesh search engines” indicating that users put information on criminals online and let others track down and punish these people with the help of the web (pretty frightening when thinking of the possibility that innocents may become victims of these “online punishment” strategies). During this excellent talk I realized that there is so much media coverage on China and Internet censorship, but little is known about the actual use of the web by its Chines users.

After that I attended a panel on the Internet of affect. The basic idea of this panel was to discuss emotions internet researchers have when investigating and using the web. Surprisingly emotions such as fear and anger were high on the agenda. Sally Wyatt, however, suggested boredom and coined internet use as a form of “domestic labor” – most particularly in regard to online health information, which I find an interesting thought. After that a long discussion evolved around the “economy of attention”. In this context I asked myself whether the desire for attention is something inside of us, or whether it’s – at least partly – triggered by the technology providing a network of surveillance services when thinking of Google analytics, but also the like and comment functions on facebook & co.

 

Photo credit: Wrote; on ir11 Flickr stream

After lunch I most particularly appreciated Christian T. Callisen’s talk about the history of social networks. He discussed the “Republic of Letters”, a virtual community way before the Internet. In the 17th century intellectuals both from Europe and the US exchanged letters to transcend national boundaries and establish a metaphysical republic. I think this is a brilliant historical case study, that shows that we can learn a lot from history when trying to understand present-day virtual communities and social networks. In the evening of the first day we all went to the reception in the beautiful “Börsen” building, where I had a really interesting conversation about Google books and copyrights issues. After that we ended up in the pub “Bishops Arms”, which showed me that Bishops Arms in Umeå is by far not the only one in Sweden. Hm.

Day 2: The next morning I attended the session “Unlikely players and playing”, where my HUMlab colleagues Emma Ewadotter and Calle Engquvist were presenting their work on the power of gamers or the “artist as an activist”. They elaborated that users of the game “Planet Calypso” had a hard time to accept equipment for free, which Calle gave away as an art intervention. Particularly in respect to violent games such as “Left 4 Dead”, which was presented by Staffan Lennart Björk, I started wondering why users have a hard time to accept gifts, while they don’t seem to have problems with wildly shooting and kicking. – what a funny age we’re living in.

In the afternoon I enjoyed the panel “Google this. How knowledge and power work in a culture of search”. Ken Hillis, Michael Petit and Kylie Jarrett have put together a really interesting panel on the power of Google. Kylie Jarrett drew on Bourdieu to discuss the symbolic capital or “meta-capital” of Google, that allows it to define what can be used as capital in many arenas. Michael Petit discussed that McLuhan’s notion of “the medium is the message” may be seen as particularly applying to search technology, since users create their own results. In many cases search could no longer be seen as a means to an end, but has become an end in itself. Ken Hillis was finally talking about the metaphysical assumptions that underlie Google and search practices in a more general sense. He argues that Google has the influence to shape how people think in terms of making everything searchable, which well-corresponds to our need of efficiency and speed, I guess. He further showed the quite amusing website “The Church of Google” elaborating why Google may be considered as God.

Considering all these issues discussed in the panel I’m already looking forward to the book on “Google and the culture of search” Hillis and Petit are currently working on, stay tuned!

Day 3: I started with the panel on virtual worlds organized by my HUMlab colleagues Jim Barrett, Mats Deutschmann, Jenna Ng, and Stefan Gelfgren. Mats was talking about second life as a learning environment, that has the potential to break down hierarchies between teacher and student and trigger “communities of practice” instead. Jim was talking about aboriginal narratives and how second life could help to teach and learn Sami language, which has different terms for the same object depending on the position of the object in space (if I got it correctly). Stefen was finally talking about Christian churches in second life and that they trigger pretty traditional praying practices. “A lot of praying 2.0 going on in Second life”, as Stefan put it. Unfortunately I missed Jenna’s talk, sorry for that!

After that I attended a panel on “Knowledge sharing, collaboration and attribution”. In this session I was primarily interested in (the rise) and fall of “Google Lively” presented by Isto Huvila. He was discussing that a lot of users migrated to second life when Google shut down its own virtual world. After that I felt exhausted and skipped the last session.

Altogether I perceived the quality of most of the presentations as very high (some more theory here and there wouln’t have hurt, but it was fine). Further, the twitter stream was filled with messages at an amazing speed. After having actively contributed on the first day I became a lazy twitterer, just because I realized that I got completely distracted from the actual presentations. Maybe someone can explain to me how to multi-task all that? Anyway, it was fun to follow all these tweets and see which pieces of work drew the most attention. By the way, that makes me think of Nancy Baym’s keynote on Swedish pop culture and online participation discussing how the notions of fan and audience change in the age of the Internet. – Being a heavy twitterer herself, I guess she was the one actually drawing the most attention; rightly as she held a very entertaining talk!

Photo credit for the left one: Jeffrey Keefer; on ir11 Flickr stream

Next year’s AoIR conference is going to be held in Seattle, hope I can get funding to go there!

What needs to be done

These are some thoughts on the SuMa conference in Berlin, that I originally posted on the HUMlab blog:

Last week I spent a wonderful time in Berlin. I went there to pick up the SuMa Award my PhD “Mediated Knowledge” (download) received from the “SuMa-eV – Verein fuer freien Wissenszugang”, which makes me very happy!! The society annually awards works dealing with the future of digital knowledge ranging from scientific research, artistical approaches, to technical contributions such as search engines (check out the application deadline in spring!). Besides my PhD, the search engine “NewsClub im Bundestag“, the online dictionary “Linguee“, the scientific search engine ”BASE” and the satire “Google Home View“ were awarded this year. More Infos on the SuMa society could also be found here.

The award ceremony took place on the 6 October as part of the SuMa conference. The central goal of the conference with the title “what needs to be done” was to find ways how the German/ European civil society may shape the future of the world wide web. The title of the conference indicates that the conference organizers, most importantly the director of the society Wolfgang Sander-Beuermann, do not only aim to discuss, but rather to actively participate in the shaping of digital futures. Guiding questions for this challenging undertaking are how could free knowledge exchange be assured? What do we, as a society, know when knowing is equated with Googling? How could transparancy, data security and privacy guaranteed? And what is the role of civil society?

To answer these questions different actors were invited to the discussion including information scientists, policy makers – both German and European, as well as members of the civil society such as activists, bloggers and journalists (for details check the conference programme). While the morning sessions were primarily concerned with the way network technologies change institutions and concepts such as libraries, magazines and knowledge/ information in a broader sense, the afternoon sessions were mostly dealing with privacy issues, data security and legislation. The collision of these different viewpoints clearly showed the challenges involved in creating a digital future meeting all our needs.

One of the challenges is to harmonize local regulations with global trends. US American companies such as Google or Facebook pose privacy issues, that reach the limits of European and local legislation, not least when thinking of contemporary debates around Google Street View. Another challenge seems to be the fact that politics is increasingly overruled by commerce. Regret was expressed amongst some participants that German legislation would be too strict and thus prevent German search engines to grow and compete with global players. But should the answer to that be a liberation of local regulations to compete with the US American economy? Or could (should?) countries such as Germany not rather figure as a critical voice in the global concert and strengthen alternatives to money-driven developments?

This question closely relates to the final discussion on the role of civil society in shaping our digital future/s. While the panel “what politics can do” did not really provide answers, the panel with proponents from the civil society seemed more promising to me. Initiatives such as the European hacker association “Chaos Computer Club” aim to bridge the gap between technical and societal developments, a gap that is no longer filled by science according to the speaker of the CCC Constanze Kurz (an interesting thought that needs further consideration when thinking of Google as a search engine, that originally grew out of the scientific arena, for example). As time went on the discussion crystallized around the question how to strengthen such initiatives. Lars Reppesgaard, the author of the book “Das Google Imperium”, asked whether a bigger, more prominent actor is needed.

Referring to Greenpeace he suggested “DATAPEACE” as a powerful actor, that may better fulfil the role of critically reflecting and actively contributing to the shaping of our networked world. I want to conclude with this suggestion and leave it to the readers to think it further. Since these discussions took place in the German context, it would also be interesting to hear about debates in other cultural contexts such as the Swedish one. Are there similar/ divergent debates? What could we learn from different contexts? Answers are highly welcome..

Personally, I really enjoyed the conference and all the interesting conversations! I want to thank the organizers for inviting and awarding me, and all the participants for sharing their thoughts – both in public and private discussions! Good luck with all your future initiatives and events, it’s important to keep asking “what needs to be done”, even if there are no simple answers to this question. Finally, I also want to thank my friend Axel for letting me stay at his place and showing me all the great restaurants and bars. Berlin is always worth a visit!

Buugle

X3: Buugle – was Google kann können wir schon lange! = a clever and funny – yet disturbing – animation about surveillance/ privacy issues raised by Google and the German federal government. Film made by Alexander Lehmann. (in German)


Filmbeschreibung auf Lehmann’s YouTube Channel: “Deutschland im Jahre 2010. Die Datenkrake „Google” kündigt ihren neuen Dienst „Google Streetview” an. Medien, Bürger und Politiker laufen Sturm. In einem bisher unbekanntem Maß wird die Privatssphäre unbescholtener Bürger durch das Datensammelmonster „Google” verletzt.

Doch haben sie in der Eile ein ganz anderes Projekt völlig aus den Augen verloren. Denn seit einiger Zeit arbeitet die Bundesregierung, ohne viel Aufmerksamkeit zu erregen, an einem eigenen System zum Abbau der lästigen Privatsphäre: Buugle.”

My PhD gets a SuMa Award

It’s official now: My PhD gets awarded by the “SuMa-eV – Verein fuer freien Wissenszugang“!!! :) The SuMa-eV is a society with the central goal to assure free access to knowledge. In their doing they particularly focus on search engines, that have become central access points to the web and digital knowledge. Their ideology basically is to work towards a landscape of free, heterogeneous, and non-monopolistic search engines. More concretely, their goal is to raise awareness and information/ digital skills in the public and policy realm, but also to develop alternative technologies. You can get more information on SuMa technologies including a link to the SuMa blog here (in German, sorry for that).

© SuMa-eV

In addition to these activities they anually award works dealing with the future of digital knowledge. And I’m really happy that I get one of these SuMa Awards this year!!! Besides my PhD “Mediated Knowledge” (download), the OpenGovernment search engine “NewsClub im Bundestag” and the online dictionary “Linguee” are awarded this year. The award ceremony takes place on the 6th of October in Berlin as part of the SuMa-eV conference. I’m really looking forward to this event, especially as it nicely fits to my new project on the social construction of search engines and their information political implications. I suppose it’s a good spot to get to know relevant people in the field and their perspectives on search technologies. I’m particularly looking forward to see Markus Beckedahl from Netzpolitik.org, a platform dedicated to freedom and openness in the digital age, and Lars Reppesgaard, journalist and author of the book “Das Google Imperium”. Futher, proponents from the policy realm and the commercial sector such as Microsoft and maybe Google will be there. Altogether I think it’s a good compilation of different actors and viewpoints to start off a discussion about civil society in the information/ digital age. Besides, there will also be a workshop how to install your own search engine. For more infos on the programme and registration please go to the conference website. Personally, I’m pleased to finally meet the director of SuMa-eV, Wolfgang Sander-Beuermann and Theo Röhle, who just published “Der Google Komplex” – with both of whom I only digitally corresponded so far ;). So I’m really excited about this upcoming event & keep you posted on all that.