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Social Media is Not an Equalizer

This morning, a colleage sent me a link to an article on Slashdot about some comments made by former Google executive Stafford Masie, who believes that “traditional [web] search is dying” because users are becoming more inclined to ask their social networks for information instead of searching static web pages. Go read the article if you’d like to delve more into Mr. Masie’s reasoning.

I see this same proclamation more and more often these days. Some people (almost all of them connected with Google in some way, it seems) are constantly falling all over themselves trying to assure us that one day soon all of our answers will come from the great social cloud: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, you name it. When we want answers, we’re going to start increasingly asking our friends instead of asking web pages in Google’s search indexes. I even saw one unconscionably arrogant individual pen an article asserting that we’re all going to be using Google+ “whether we want to or not.”

Frankly, this is just as much bullshit now as it was yesterday, last month, or last year when I penned my previous rant about this assertion. And it’ll still be bullshit tomorrow for all but a select minority of the Internet population. How many of you have a social network of thousands of people, all of them skilled individuals loaded with detailed knowledge about dozens of arcane fields? Twenty years ago, would you have thrown away your set of encyclopedias and asked only your friends at the coffee shop for information while writing a report or doing research? Even if you had very knowledgeable and influential friends, checking unbiased sources is always good practice. And what if you had only a few friends, or didn’t know anyone with knowledge on the subject at hand?

That’s why I am completely against the idea of social networks as a source of reference information, because let’s face it: that’s how most of the world uses Google, as a search engine for reference information. It might not be “reference” in the traditional sense (sci, tech, history) — hell, you might just be looking for a guide to completing a quest in some video game, or a list of episode synopses from an old TV show. This is still reference information. Google asserts that this kind of search is becoming archaic, and that we should want to search the social cloud because of its “constant freshness”. In some areas, seeding a search with recent developments via social media might be useful, but most of the time you want your reference information unclouded by potentially skewed or biased opinion (which is essentially what all social media is).

Furthermore — and this is the biggest factor for me — I see web search as an equalizer. I wrote about this once before, but search engines like Google are incredibly powerful not just technologically, but socially and politically as well, because they put the power of information in the hands of everyone with equal measure. You don’t have to have a circle of six hundred friends from Sandia National Laboratories, or personally know people who actually experienced a historical event you want to learn about. Those people have created information and placed it on the web, and Google is the directory through which you are connected with that information. You don’t have to know the author of said information. You don’t have to have expensive tastes or exclusive contacts. You only need a computer and an Internet connection.

Former Google executive Stafford Masie foresees a world in which this great equalizer of information is downplayed, and replaced with a hastily-erected resurrection of the social caste system that we deal with in real life. Social-driven search pressures us all to build wide and vast social networks online, almost competitively, in order to have access to information. We’re moving away from the idea that curiosity and intellect should catalyze information acquisition, and back to the idea that the key to acquiring knowledge is social extroversion.

Call me bitter, but as an introvert who never had much taste for socializing in real life, and who has relished the rise of the great equalizer of web search, the idea of a socially powered search network is an enormous, eye-rolling step backwards.

Lest you think me a Luddite, social media is far from devoid of merit. Your social network will undoubtedly be a better place than Google for information on temporal media (TV shows, movies, current events) precisely because of that constant freshness that I mentioned earlier. It’s a great place for restaurant recommendations, references for local service professionals and case studies. And of course, it’s the best way I know of to keep up with family and friends who live in all corners of the world; that is a technological marvel in and of itself.

But a social network is not, nor will it ever be in my estimation, a replacement for in-depth, unbiased and accurate reference information on a vast array of subjects, many of which professionals like myself deal with in our careers on a daily basis.

Lastly, we would do well to remember that as a business whose revenue stream is based on advertising, Google is naturally inclined to talk up social networking because it benefits them financially. Anyone who believes that Google is more than superficially concerned about anything other than how much money they can make from social media is living in a utopian dream world.

I’ll leave you with another user’s comment from the Slashdot article mentioned above, which I found particularly on-target.

There are social network ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Some people have 500,000 twitter followers, and can ask just about any question and get a slew of responses, some of them excellent. Some people have 15 with nary a high school graduate in the list; getting insightful and timely answers from that list is not nearly as likely. People with hundreds or thousands of followers think that social media is going to change the world; they literally do not realize that not everyone has the same type of network that they do. That, in fact, they are blessed with a surplus of social power in the same way that some people have wealth.

Search engines don’t care how many friends you have. They have answers. Search is an equalizer; social networks are not.

3 thoughts on “Social Media is Not an Equalizer

  1. It’s simply ridiculous to claim that a person’s social media connections can ever replace the kind of objective and widespread information available through search engines. If I want a restaurant, movie, or book recommendation, I’ll ask my online friends. If I need information about anything else, I want the objective opinion found on independent websites or from other authorities in the field.

    I may be eating these words 20 years from now, but I hope not.

    1. Yep, that sums up my opinions on the subject. Another point I neglected to raise is that search already has an integrated social aspect: discussion forums. They manage to be social, informative and topical all in equal measure, and are often among the best sources of reference information in technological fields.

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