Misdirection and the politics of the Internet

December 7, 2006 at 1:41 pm Leave a comment

This post is a little bit off topic when it comes to the general theme of my blog, but it has captured my interest from a general cataloguing point of view. Some time back I came across a blog where the Title of the post that I was reading had absolutely nothing to do with the content that followed. The article was far from spam, but I believe the author was attempting to make a statement about the nature of popular link titles and methods of improving ranking. At the time I was mostly interested simply from an SEO perspective.  But recently I have noticed that the same methodology is being employed as a means to carry out political attacks on the Net.

My recent favourite attack is a ‘feminist’ attack on the proliferation of pornographic images on the Net. In particular, the internet has been aflutter with a group of photographs that were taken of Britney Spears’ crotch that revealed that she did not wear underwear to a variety of functions. A group of feminists who take offense at the objectification of female genitalia on the Internet are fighting back.

A similar technique was employed some time back by the recording industry in an attempt to combat pirates who were keen to illegally download Madonna’s latest album. Madonna flooded filesharing networks with fake tracks from her album that simply consisted of her actually telling off pirates who were trying to download the album. The attack on piracy reached the mainstream media, but in the end it seemed that while it had discouraged a number of small number of users, the album continued to be downloaded regardless. The approach has since been carried much further with Macrovision attempting to do fake p2p flooding on a grander scale, in an effort to protect music and software from piracy.

In a way, a lot of this activity ties into a ‘meme/counter-meme‘ war. Mike Godwin, an attorney who was on the Usenet in the 1990’s created his own counter-meme in an effort to combat the nazi-comparison meme that was prolific on newsgroups of the time. His counter-meme took off and was ultimately referred to as Godwin’s Law. A number of corollaries were invented to follow. And eventually each reference to ‘nazi-like behaviour’ on the Usenet was faced with the rebuttal of Godwin’s Law.

So, what am I really getting at with this post? Well, I’m intrigued as to what all of this activity is slowly doing to our ability to find particular information on the Internet. And to how it documents social responses to particular events in time. In essence, it is taking the methods that people use to search and turning them against the people that are doing the searching. What that means is that we already understand how important titles and links are on the Internet. Matt Cutts, at Google, demonstrates how important titles, headings and naming are to improving visibility when it comes to search. But if we are slowly working out ways to reverse-engineer search methodology and we are using that knowledge to counter the productivity of search to a specific end, will we ever be able to undo the mess that we are making?

Technically, what the feminist group mentioned earlier in this post is trying to achieve is a method of saturating the Pornography shelves of the Internet library with Feminist literature. When really, their posts should appear on shelves that deal with Feminism/Commentary on Pornography. I’m not saying that there is a moral leaning either way in this sort of activity, but it is eventually going to have a major impact on our ability to categorise information on the Internet. In essence, a search engine is not wrong in presenting these articles to anybody that searches for ‘Britney’s crotch’ online, because these articles are relevant commentary on exactly that. However, in all likelihood the results returned will rarely be relevant to the searcher.

All in all, misdirection is commonplace on the Internet, and has been used for years. It is at the heart of most malware, and is common in the political sphere. But from the perspective of any librarian or cataloguer or search specialist, it seems that memes themselves threaten the very possibility of the Net ever becoming an easily searched resource for information.

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